Monday, December 27, 2010

Last Christmas in Lost Lisbon

Background: Ten years back, when I was between jobs, a very accomplished cousin of mine was scheduled to visit my family on the day before Christmas, and I chose not to be at home. Was I escaping from him, or was it myself I wished to escape from I don’t know, but escapes like these played a major role to shape me up, and to make me what I am today. And now I also realise that escapades were better than resorting to addictions or plunging downhill towards a suicidal precipice.

Last Christmas in Lost Lisbon

The past; Bengal, early eighteenth century

The British were trying to gain their stronghold in India. But other colonizers were up in the front too: The French, the Danish, the Dutch, and of course the Portuguese.

The local rulers were busy in their game of “king of the castle”, and the Europeans vied for their attention. They would often send their troops marching for a particular ruler who would grant them some favour. This was also the time when the Mughals and the Marathas have spent up their energies fighting each other. While the Mughals took a backseat, letting off the reins on their Mansabdars, Subedars, and Nawabs, the Marathas formed invincible raiding bands called “Bargis”. These bands travelled like swarm of locusts, raiding and pillaging every settlement on their way. Janaki Devi, the just widowed Queen of Mahishadal, a small town in Medinipur, was a bit hesitant to tackle the hoard of Bargis all by herself. She asked for help from her superior, Alibardi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal.

Fortunately, the Nawab had a few notorious Protuguese warriors in his prisons. These warriors had made a failed attempt to overthrow the Nawab and were now behind the bars, begging for His Majesty's mercy. The Nawab summoned these firanghis to his durbar and granted them freedom and immunity on one condition – that they will settle in various regions of the Nawab’s kingdom and serve the local rulers to fight the Marathas and the growing menace, the British.

So, 15 of these firanghis were sent to Mahishadal to serve as the queen's commandants. Daring, ruthless, cunning, and well-versed with the art of land and sea war, these Portuguese warriors were immediately commissioned by the queen and given 100 bighas of land, free from revenue. The blue-eyed warriors settled in a village near today’s Geonkhali.

Fast forward; Calcutta, 24th December, 2000 AD

It sometime happens that the city seems to chase you day and night and a feeling of emptiness broods within you. I feel exactly the same – I want an escape, even if a temporary one. A need of self-actualization you’d say. But a look at the well-known Maslow’s hierarchy was enough to surprise myself – I am strangely after the topmost need, while the basic ones are still unachieved. I am jobless, living with my family of six in a rented house where pipes leak and doors creak. So, I call this escape “a search for a different Christmas; somewhere in the world”.

The city is geared up to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. Shops display their stock of plum cakes and fruit cakes. People queue up in front of liquor shops. Lindsay Street and Park Street dazzle in their best. The radio booms out carols and spirituals.

I sneak out, carrying a pair of rusted flintlock cameras, a few cereal bars, some packs of roasted peanuts, and bottle of water. I walk up to the Diamond Harbour Road, and catch a bus for Nurpur, a riverside daytrip destination. I have a personal stereo within my head. I put it on to play “Last Christmas…” the Wham chartbuster of yesteryears.

The bus moves like a snail, held up in a mega traffic jam at Amtala. The jam session intensifies with high-pitched speakers playing filmy hits – driver’s choice. Some of the seated passengers snore off peacefully, while others wiggle restlessly in their seats. Peanut sellers get on and off the queued up buses, one after the other, crying “bhaja badam chhilo, lebu lojes chhilo, chirey-badamer khaja chhilo, tatka chhilo, khasta chhilo…” as if everything “was” (chhilo) and nothing “is”.

A passenger decides to quit his seat and walk down the remaining half kilometre to his destination. I get a seat. I stir up a conversation with the man beside me, and as a rule I speak less and listen more. The fellow introduces himself as Md. Naseeb, a small time trader hailing from a village near Nurpur. However, most of the time he stays in Panipat, Haryana from where he buys blocks of bell metal, aluminium, and brass and sends them to Calcutta. Naseeb speaks about the cattle-wealth of the Haryanvis, about the cheap rice and flour, and about the wedding ceremonies he had attended there. He laments about the four kilograms of sweetmeat bought and carried from Panipat, which he lost to a petty thief at Howrah Station this morning. He stops and asks for water – I hand him my water bottle. I ask him if he is hungry, and getting a positive response I offer him a cereal bar. Hesitatingly he nips at it and then consumes it peacefully. He washes the last bits down his throat with another gulp of water and brings out his pack of beedies. We resume our talks with occasional pauses to let the smoke out. Meanwhile, the bus has come out of the snarl and speeds over beautifully asphalted roads. Naseeb states, “The roads were like hell, you know, but they were repaired before the Chief Minister visited Radisson (a luxury resort near Falta). Now we have the best roads here.” It reminds me of the story where a villager requested his monarch to visit his poor household and in the way got a road made from the capital to his village.

Three kilometres to Nurpur, Naseeb gets down. Before that he has begged me to get down with him and be his guest rather than going looking for some Portuguese village which nobody knows about.

At Nurpur, the bus belches out all its passengers. People proceed towards the jetty to catch the launch to Geonkhali or the bhutbhuti (country boat with makeshift engine) to Gadiara. Some of them stop a while to buy a palm-leaf hat or sip a green coconut. I ignore the call of the toddy sellers and board the launch for Geonkhali. On board, I ask several people about the Portuguese village. Some suggest me to catch a bus for Haldia and to get down at Sutahata. Others stare with blank ignorance or nod negative. I get down, brush past the cycle-van pullers calling for passengers, and follow the crowd to the bus stop. There again I start enquiring. After several vain attempts of describing the Portuguese by physical traits (like blue eyes, tall stature, red hair etc.) I decide to enquire about Christian people. After three centuries of mingling with local population, no race can retain their original physical appearance, but religion might be a mast they will stick to. An elderly person tells me the way to Christian Para (locality). I find his directions utterly confusing and look around for help.

Suddenly like the guiding star to the three men of Orient, appear five young men on three bicycles and offer me a ride to Christian Para. I tug along the one riding alone, but instead of taking the backseat, I offer to pull him. Happily he accepts the pillion. We ride on along winding country roads, beside canals and ditches, across harvested fields. A little distance away I notice a church spire rising up through the dense canopy of mangoes and banyans. We leave this church behind and proceed along the brick-laid road. Finally, we screech to halt near another small church, with a fresh coat of incomplete paint on it, across a grassy field. The place seems to be the end of the village, for a sea of rice fields extend beyond this point. My escorts almost vanish among an array of huge sound boxes, conical loud speakers, and unending coils of wires and cables. As they start untangling and fixing I understand they have come here to lend their sound systems for the Christmas.

A villager shows me the way to the Portuguese households. Hesitant, I enter a small courtyard surrounded by a few dwelling houses, a kitchen, and a barn. Asters bloom in their beds while Chrysanthemums are yet to flower. A bunch of young people are busy strapping tiny light-bulbs to bamboo frames.

An elderly person walks up to me. I notice his pair of porcelain-blue eyes and his pale complexion. As I tell him my intentions, he seems a bit relaxed but tired. He points towards a bench and we sit down. He speaks slowly as I ask him about his ancestors, and bit by bit the history unfolds before me. Looking around I find the other members of the family standing in a half circle behind us, eagerly waiting for their turn to speak. By now I know that the elderly person I am speaking to is named Stephen Tesra, but is known more as Ajit Tesra. All the people here bear two names, a Christian name for the church and a Bengali name to be called by.

One of Stephen’s sons, probably the eldest, comes forward and introduces himself as Bersoba alias Barun. He doesn’t have the blue eyes of his father. Beside him stands his wife, a typical Bengali lady complete with the conch and coral bangles worn as a sign of being married. Bersoba looks depressed as he tells me, “We have nothing left of our Portuguese ancestry. We have lost our language and our history too. Today we are indistinguishable from any other Bengalis. If you ask for Bersoba, very few will be able to recognize me, but if you look for Barun Tesra they will lead you to my house.” His wife quips, “It’s not our fault. Our ancestors didn’t have women with them. So they had to marry local women. And children learn their tongue from their mothers…so our original language was lost.”

Stephen resumes, “A few years back some people from Portugal came to visit us. Seems they were our kinsmen. But we couldn’t talk to them. They didn’t speak Bengali. Even their Goan escorts found it difficult to converse with us since we know very little Hindi or English.”

Bersoba hesitatingly invites me to duti daal bhat, a humble Bengali lunch of rice and lentil. I accept his invitation and can immediately see the happiness beaming on his face. Stephen asks for my permission as he leaves for a dip in the nearby pond. I get up and stroll towards the church.

Inside, young boys on step ladders decorate the ceiling and the iron beams with paper patterns and home-made chandeliers fashioned out of bangles and beads. Outside, painters give a new coat to the belfry. At a distance a white pig munches his fodder in his sty and grunts in disgrace. Some bubble-eyed fishes swim in a pond.

I return to the Tesra’s. The platter of rice looks like a miniature Mt. Everest. Side plates contain alur dam, some kind of fry, and an omelette. Stephen supervises my lunch. He talks about himself, his six children and two adopted children. I come to know that at present there are about five hundred people in fifty five families with Portuguese ancestry. They bear surnames like D’Souza, Rozzario, Pereira, Tesra, Rota and likewise. Stephen speaks on, “We still enjoy exemption from land revenue as given to our ancestors. But the government is on the move to impose revenue on us shortly.”

Coming out, I find old Mrs. Tesra on the porch. I try to photograph her, but she keeps on declining, saying that she will look ugly with her wrinkled skin. Stephen pursues her till she gives in to her husband’s request. As I shoot her pictures, she tells me about herself. “I have six sons and six daughters-in-law. The daughters-in-law dare not kick me because my sons are very caring. They spend a lot for my medicines. They say, “If one can’t look after his parents while they’re living, what’s the use in spending a lot in their funeral?” Some years back they celebrated the fortieth anniversary of our wedding.”

I ask her about the two churches – one big and the other small. “Ours is a humble church, theirs is a rich one”, replies Mrs. Tesra, “Do you know the poem about the sparrow and the weaver-bird?” She recites, “Babui pakhire deke kohilo chorai, kure ghore theke koro shilper borai…” (The sparrow taunts the weaver-bird, “how could you speak of art staying in a thatched shack?”). The old lady carries on, “They are the sparrows, their pomp and richness is made from other people’s money. But we are the weaver-birds; our church might be small and poor, but we have built it ourselves.” She points at the yard where the boys are still busy with the lamps and bamboos. “This decoration is not for our house, it’s for the church,” declares the proud mother.

Bidding goodbye to the Tesras, I come out to take a walk in the village before I leave. I find people busy erecting bamboo poles and putting up chains of lamps and coloured papers on them. An old man, with hazel eyes behind a pair of heavily frosted glass, ties paper chains to his fence. The sound system guys who escorted me to this village greet me. I wander off to find a cemetery. The old graves of the first settlers are lost. A tomb, overgrown with clumps of grasses, tries to speak to me about the past. Cow-dung cakes smeared on the brick-works interrupt our conversation. The sun sets with an amber radiance over the crumbling graves. Time spares none.

I take a cycle-van ride to Geonkhali. The puller stops now and then to take a sip from his sachet of Cholai, a strong-smelling illegal brew, I cross the river and board a bus. Homeward bound, I think about the little dollop of Portugal, fading away in Bengal’s melting pot.

Near Amtala, the bus is stranded in a jam again. Ahead of us a matador van carrying a picnic crowd sends off fumes of obnoxious music. Silhouettes dance to the nauseating beats. I try to close my ears; if only ears had lids like eyes…I put on the personal stereo that plays within my brain, “Silent night, holy night…”


swarnee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
swarnee said...

as i said, this was my best christmas gift this year. :)

zanne said...

i am so touched. .

Bikramadittya said...

Thanks a lot for reading and commenting my dear friends. :)